Games "not unlike chesse"...

This piece was put together for the Magister-L mailing-list, and constitutes a first stab at a section for the inevitable / eventual Magister-L FAQ. It discusses a number of games which are chess-like in one way or another, and / or which resemble Hermann Hesse's Glass Bead Game. It is not, however, an essay so much as a collage of appropriate quotes with some URLs for related web pages -- it should be considered a resource, rather than a writing.

Charles Cameron


Games "not unlike chesse"...

i: The Glass Bead Game itself

Hermann Hesse describes the Glass Bead Game as chess-like. In his account of the "prehistory" of the GBG, he writes:

Here and there in the ancient literatures we encounter legends of wise and mysterious games that were conceived and played by scholars, monks, or the courtiers of cultured princes. These might take the form of chess games in which the pieces and squares had secret meanings in addition to their usual functions.
and later:
A reader who chanced to be ignorant of the Glass Bead Game might imagine such a Game pattern as rather similar to the pattern of a chess game, except that the significance of the pieces and the potentialities of their relationships to one another and their effect upon one another multiplied manyfold and an actual content must be ascribed to each piece, each constellation, each chess move, of which this move, configuration, and so on is the symbol.
Long-time readers of this list will already be familiar with the comments that follow, and I ask their indulgence: but for our chess-inclined newcomers -- and as a kind of warm up for a section on "Chess and Glass Bead Games" for a FAQ that I think we need to write -- I'd like to mention the following:

ii: Chess in the Chymical Marriage

One of the most marvelous books in the world -- the Chymical Marriage of Johann Valentin Andreae, first published in 1616, translated into English by Ezechiel Foxcroft in 1690 -- refers to a game "not unlike chesse" which seems to be a precursor for Hesse's thoughts on the matter:

Meantime, the king and queen, for recreation's sake, began to play together. It looked not unlike chesse, only it had other laws, for it was the vertues and vices one against another, where it might be ingeniously discovered with what plots the vices lay in wait for the vertues, and how to re-encounter them again. This was so properly and artificially performed that it were to be wished that we had the like game too.

iii: Enochian Chess

WB Yeats and MacGregor Mathers used to play just such a game: it was called Enochian or Rosicrucian Chess, and Yeats writes in his Memoirs, p. 73-74:

Sometimes in the evening we would play a curious form of chess at which there should be four players. My partner would be Mrs. Mathers, and Mathers would declare that he had a spirit for his. He would cover his eyes with his hands or gaze at the empty chair at the opposite corner of the board before moving his piece...

For further information:

There's a chapter about Enochian Chess in The Golden Dawn by Israel Regardie.

Aztral Games offer an Enochian Chess game with book-length commentary.

"Nyrath the nearly wise", the alter ego of Winchell Chung, has put some beautiful black and white images of the four Enochian boards on the web.

Christine Zalewski has written a book called Enochian Chess of the Golden Dawn: A Four-Handed Chess Game.

And one of our subscribers, Ron Hale-Evans, wrote to this list a while back:

At one point I was working on a program that would play Enochian Chess on the Macintosh. I finally gave up on having the program actually play the game itself, since I don't play chess at a high level and could not provide decent strategic programming. I limited myself to simply representing the board and pieces so that eventually anyone could download a free Enochian chessboard from the Net -- making a good one "in real life" is usually quite an undertaking. I got as far as displaying the chessboard in colour with all the elemental and alchemical and astrological symbols in the triangles on the squares, before I decided it was beyond my programming ability at the time and gave up. I may take it up again at some point, if there is enough interest.

iv: Intrachange

There's also a fascinating GBG variant called Intrachange by William Horden, formerly a subscriber to this list, which is based on the marriage of Chess and the I Ching.

Intrachange makes brilliant use of the numerical correspondences between the two systems:

2 sides in Chess <> broken and unbroken lines in the I Ching
6 types of pieces in chess <> 6 lines in a hexagram in the I Ching
8 files in chess <> 8 trigrams in the I Ching
64 squares on a chess board <> 64 hexagrams in the I Ching

Highly recommended.

v: Charles Williams' Tarot Game

Then there's Charles Williams -- scholar of Dante, poet of the Arthuriad, theologian of Romantic Love... One of his "supernatural thrillers" contains a Tarot-based game.

The book is a kaleidoscope of ideas: a particle now takes on the hue of Zen Buddhism, then twists into the simple piety of Brother Lawrence, then clashes with a dark jewel of sorcery. It is a guide to Christian charity, intercessory prayer and the practice of the presence of God -- as in the luminous passage in Chapter Ten where Sybil Coningsby, a comfortable middle-class English spinster, while putting on her shoes, demonstrates the mystical achievement...

It's a slam-bang action-fantasy melodrama too!

The book in question is Williams' astounding novel, The Greater Trumps, and these words come from William Lindsay Gresham's Preface (US ed, Pellegrini & Cudahy, 1950).

Consider the chess-like board that Williams describes:

But the top was hidden, for it was covered by a plate of what looked like gold, marked very intricately with a pattern, or perhaps with two patterns, one of squares, and one of circles, so that the eyes, as with a chess board, saw now one and now the other as predominant. Upon that plate of gold were a number of little figures, each about three inches high, also of gold, it seemed, very wonderfully wrought; so that the likeness to the chess board was even more pronounced, for to any hasty spectator (could such a one ever have penetrated there) the figures might have seemed like those in a game; only there were many of them, and they were all in movement. Gently and continuously they went, immingling, unresting -- as if to some complicated measure, and as if of their own volition. There must have been nearly a hundred of them, and from the golden plate upon which they went came a slight sound of music -- more like an echo than a sound -- sometimes quickening, sometimes slowing, to which the golden figures kept a duteous rhythm, or perhaps the faint sound itself was but their harmonized movement upoin their field.
This is the ur-tarot, the prototype from which all tarot decks are generated, and it is also the key figure in Williams' work, and the archetype of the great dance which is the world...

All the figures of the deck are there:

He saw among them those who bore the coins and those who held swords or staffs or cups; and among these he searched for the shapes of the Greater Trumps, and one by one his eyes found them, but each separately, so that as he fastened his attention on one the rest faded around it to a golden blur. But there they were, in exact presentation: the Juggler who danced continuously round the edge of the circle, tossing little balls up and catching them again; the Emperor and Empress; the masculine and feminine hierophants; the old anchorite treading his measure and the hand- clasped lovers wheeling in theirs; a Sphinx-drawn chariot moving in a dancing guard of the four lesser orders; an image closing the mouth of a lion, and another bearing a cup closed by its hand, and another with scales but with unbandaged eyes -- which had been numbered in the paintings under the titles of strength and temperance and justice; the wheel of fortune turning between two blinded shapes who bore it; two other shapes who bore between them a pole or cross on which hung by his foot the image of a man; the swift, ubiquitous form of a sickle-armed Death; a horned mystery bestriding two chained victims; a tower that rose and fell in pieces, and then was re-arisen in some new place; and the woman who wore a crown of stars, and the twin beasts who had each of them on their heads a crescent moon, and the twin children on whose brows were two rayed suns in glory -- the star, the moon, the sun; the heavenly form of judgement who danced with a skeleton half freed from its grave-clothes, and held a trumpet to its lips; and the single figure who leaped in a rapture and was named the world. One by one Henry recognized them and named them to himself, and all the while the tangled measure went swiftly on. After a few minutes he looked round. "They're certainly the same; in every detail they're the same. Some of the attributed meanings aren't here, of course, but that's all."

"Even to that?" Aaron asked in a low voice, and pointed to the Fool in the middle of the field.

It was still; it alone in the middle of all that curious dance did not move; though it stood as if poised for running. The lynx or other great cat by its side was mttionless also. They paused -- the man and the beast -- as if struck into inactivity in the very midst of activity. And all about them, sliding, stepping, leaping, rolling, the complex dance went on.

A magic theatre, then, a ludus sollemnis played out on a board that film would find it hard to capture with its special effects, but which the mind sees with vivid intensity when thus described...

And to what purpose? From the Preface, again:

The reader may wonder how the Tarot is used. The comparison of any card with any other generates ideas. However, one traditional arrangement is an equilateral triangle with the Juggler at the apex, the cards dealt in sequence, seven on a side. The Lovers are in the lower right hand corner, Death in the left. And in the center of the triangle is placed the Fool. The mind is allowed to wander over this design, making associations, drawing parallels and inferences, until at last a new conception is born of understanding. It is a strenuous pastime.

I have never heard of any other mechanical aid to meditation save one...

For the purpose of meditation -- for comparisons which generate ideas... the mind wandering, "making associations, drawing parallels and inferences, until at last a new conception is born of understanding."

vi: The Magic Theater

Finally, Hermann Hesse describes an equally astounding chess game in the "Magic Theater" section of Steppenwolf, a game which itself seems distinctly related to the GBG:

I found myself in a quiet twilit room where a man with something like a large chessboard in front of him sat in Eastern fashion on the floor...
This man introduces himself:
I am not anybody. We have no names here and we are not anybody. I am a chess player. Do you wish for instruction in the building up of the personality?
Hesse continues:
He held a glass up to me and again I saw the unity of my personality broken up into many selves...

The pieces were now, however, very small, about the size of chessmen. The player took a dozen or so of them in his sure and quiet fingers and placed them on the ground near the board...

With the sure and silent touch of his clever fingers he took hold of my pieces, all the old men and young men and children and women, cheerful and sad, strong and weak, nimble and clumsy, and swiftly arranged them on his board for a game. At once they formed themselves into groups and families, games and battles, friendships and enmities, making a small world. For a while he let this lively and yet orderly world go through its evolutions before my enraptured eyes in play and strife, making treaties and fighting battles, wooing, marrying and multiplying. It was indeed a crowded stage, a moving breathless drama.

Then he passed his hand swiftly over the board and gently swept all the pieces into a heap; and, meditatively with an artist's skill, made up a new game of the same pieces with quite other groupings, relationships and entanglements. The second game had an affinity with the first, it was the same world built of the same material, but the key was different, the time changed, the motif was differently given out and the situations differently presented.

And in this fashion the clever architect built up one game after another our of the figures, each of which was a bit of myself, and ever game had a distant resemblance to every other. Each belonged recognizably to the same world and acknowledged a common origin. Yet each was entirely new.

"This is the art of life," he said dreamily...


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